Talk­ing About

A gap year be­tween high school and col­lege can be a chance for a teen to ex­plore and ma­ture—without the pres­sure of grades.

Family Circle - - ON DUTY - By Al­li­son Slater Tate

For many of our teens, high school feels like one long job in­ter­view for col­lege. They are pres­sured to pro­duce the best grades in chal­leng­ing cour­ses as well as wow-wor­thy test scores while still pur­su­ing mean­ing­ful ex­tracur­ric­u­lars. What we’re cre­at­ing are men­tally and phys­i­cally ex­hausted kids who then, just months af­ter their high school grad­u­a­tion, start all over again on col­lege cam­puses— where they’re ex­pected to know what they want to study and who they will be when they grow up. What if our chil­dren had the op­por­tu­nity to push pause on the whole busi­ness of grow­ing up, ex­plore some of their in­ter­ests, per­haps try and—stay with me, now—even fail at a few things be­fore they set­tle into ma­jors, ca­reer tracks and full­blown adult­hood? The choice ex­ists, and that’s why we should talk to our kids about the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing a gap year, ac­cord­ing to Holly Bull, the pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for In­terim Pro­grams, based in Prince­ton, NJ, and Northamp­ton, MA. The cen­ter has fo­cused solely on gap year coun­sel­ing, plans and place­ments for stu­dents since her fa­ther founded it in 1980. Teens who take gap years tend to en­ter col­lege as more ma­ture, con­fi­dent and fo­cused stu­dents, and col­leges are in­creas­ingly rec­og­niz­ing them as as­sets on their cam­puses. But teens might be hes­i­tant to take them be­cause they are still not the norm in the U.S., and stu­dents don’t want to be be­hind their high school peers in school or be older than their col­lege class­mates. How­ever, the way you in­tro­duce the idea of a gap year to your child could change the way they look at the op­por­tu­nity.

Start the dis­cus­sions early

Bull rec­om­mends in­clud­ing gap years as part of the process when you start to talk about col­lege: “You could say, ‘There is col­lege and there is a gap year, and let’s look at them both. Do­ing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.’ ” Bull’s own step­daugh­ter and daugh­ter filled out forms about their in­ter­ests on the floor of her of­fice when they were just 5 and 6 years old. “They al­ways knew it was a pos­si­bil­ity,” she says. When it came time to de­cide, her step­daugh­ter, Saman­tha, did take a year be­fore col­lege. Saman­tha cred­its her time work­ing at a startup in Dublin, Ire­land, dur­ing her gap year as in­stru­men­tal in land­ing a job at IBM af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Of­fer it as a chance to step off the “tread­mill”

A gap year gives a teen a unique chance to ex­plore in­ter­ests that “light them up,” Bull says. “This is a year when you don’t have

to be good at any­thing. You can make mis­takes. You should make mis­takes—that’s how you learn.” In a time when de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety are real con­cerns on col­lege cam­puses, a gap year can also serve as an im­por­tant chance for stu­dents to do some­thing else they don’t of­ten get to do: rest. The year can look dif­fer­ent for each stu­dent and might in­clude sev­eral ex­pe­ri­ences as op­posed to just one. Some teens might want to join struc­tured pro­grams or travel abroad; oth­ers might try jobs or in­tern­ships in fields they think they’d like to pur­sue as ca­reers. Ask your teen about their dreams and the things they may want to try.

Talk about the costs

Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, “you don’t have to bleed fi­nan­cially to have a great gap year,” says Bull. Plans and pro­grams run the gamut in price, but even some ex­pen­sive pro­grams of­fer schol­ar­ships. Other op­por­tu­ni­ties, such as vol­un­teer­ing for na­tional parks or other ser­vices, of­ten pro­vide hous­ing and food for la­bor. That said, Bull sees the fi­nan­cial lessons of a gap year as one of its ben­e­fits: “If you keep in mind the goal of in­spir­ing teens to fol­low their in­ter­ests while ac­quir­ing prac­ti­cal, in-the-world skills, then learn­ing about bud­get­ing is a key com­po­nent.” At the be­gin­ning of the process, she sug­gests that par­ents talk about a bud­get for the year with their child, ex­plain­ing what they are will­ing to pay or what they can af­ford to spend to­ward the year. Par­ents can also re­quest that stu­dents work to help pay for the year, some­thing that Bull al­ways rec­om­mends, even if the fam­ily has suf­fi­cient funds. “It’s part of the stu­dent learn­ing how to take fuller re­spon­si­bil­ity, and will help in the tran­si­tion from col­lege to the work world,” she says. When Bull took her own gap year, for ex­am­ple, she used the sum­mers be­fore and af­ter to work and save up to pay for air­fare for the year. To bal­ance the costs, she chose one pro­gram that was vol­un­teer and an­other that re­quired tu­ition. What teens learn dur­ing the year could also trans­late into fu­ture money and ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties, says Bull. “On a prac­ti­cal level, your child is build­ing a ré­sumé,” she ex­plains. “They’re learn­ing skills they won’t learn in a class­room that can help them down the line with get­ting jobs. And they get the chance to ask them­selves, ‘Do I like these peo­ple? Do I like this work?’ ”

Make a plan

Bull sug­gests that teens re­ceive their ac­cep­tance and com­mit to a col­lege be­fore ask­ing for a de­fer­ral for a gap year. She says most col­leges are ac­com­mo­dat­ing as long as stu­dents agree not to earn cred­its some­where else that would change their sta­tus when they do ar­rive on cam­pus. Col­leges will also want a gen­eral idea of what a stu­dent plans to do with their year, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a bind­ing com­mit­ment. “They just want to know you won’t be a couch potato,” says Bull. The most suc­cess­ful gap years give stu­dents some­where to go in the fall at the same time their friends are head­ing off to col­lege. They have struc­ture dur­ing the year as well as a com­mu­nity and peers to sup­port teens so­cially. “You don’t want too many gaps in a gap year,” says Bull. “Have a plan and keep them busy.”

Let your teen own their choice

Although she is ob­vi­ously an ad­vo­cate for gap years, Bull thinks par­ents shouldn’t force the idea on their kids. En­cour­age them to con­sider it, she says, and let them know what they could po­ten­tially do with that time. But whether or not they ul­ti­mately de­cide to take a gap year is less im­por­tant than the fact that they’re mak­ing a con­scious de­ci­sion about their fu­ture. If they opt to go straight to col­lege, ac­cept that de­ci­sion, says Bull. “They’re choos­ing it. They’re own­ing it more.” Ei­ther way, you will have given your child a chance to be­gin de­vel­op­ing their per­sonal power—per­haps the most valu­able high school grad­u­a­tion gift you could give.

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